Saturday, February 26, 2011

You'll Need a Fifth to Finish Mr. Kennedy's Novel

Kennedy, Douglas. The Woman in the Fifth. London: Arrow, 2008 (2007).

Much could be said about Douglas Kennedy's novel The Woman in the Fifth, but this book is not one that lends itself to extensive literary criticism. The Woman in the Fifth is written pretty well. I've never been to Paris, so I can't attest to the accuracy of his city descriptions, and I've never personally known illegal immigrants participating in unsavoury activities in the French underworld, so it's difficult to assess the technical skill with which Kennedy might have captured these scenes and characters. However, I struggled with this book. Kennedy's dialogue and characters seemed, at many times, forced and flat: a problem that makes better sense given the novel's bizarre conclusion, but which cannot be forgiven by his super(fluous)natural deus ex machina. The first three quarters of the novel seem to be a profound psychological experiment (will any reader plod through this book in search of a conclusion?) while the climax lacks all plausibility: while Kennedy's supernatural finish could be tolerated, perhaps, had he also proffered a rational explanation for events, the absence of the latter makes the former ludicrous.

In short, this is a novel about a man named Harry Ricks, who leaves his American family after causing a scandal at the small school at which he once taught. In Paris, a city he has always longed to visit, he meets the book's title character as well as a slew of questionable individuals. He has a great deal of sex and attempts to write a novel, only to find that his life is cruelly guarded by a rather jealous goddess of love and revenge.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

An Exercise in Family: The Calligrapher's Daughter

Kim, Eugenia. The Calligrapher's Daughter. London: Bloomsbury, 2009.

Eugenia Kim's novel The Calligrapher's Daughter was not what I expected. Following the titular footsteps of The Memory Keeper's Daughter, The Heretic's Daughter, andThe Hangman's Daughter (of which three the first is my favourite), Kim's novel offers a fresh perspective on the stereotypical unnamed female protagonist. In the first place, The Calligrapher's Daughter is set in Korea, but a Korea not very far removed from modern life. In the second place, Kim manages, in her novel, to show without judging, and to inspire contemplation without becoming heavy-handed in her portrayal of a male-dominated society and one woman, in particular, living and growing within those constraints.

In some ways, The Calligrapher's Daughter is a coming-of-age novel: the book begins when its protagonist is a very young girl and lingers at great length over the years in which she develops into a mature young woman. Yet in Kim's novel, the transition from childhood into adulthood never truly ends: in the thirty years that pass between the first and last chapters, there is no single turning point, or definitive moment of maturity. Instead, the book describes the ebb and flow of the human experience in a way that allows readers to experience and identify with the constant, endless development that is a life. While slow in spots, this is very much a book that can be lingered upon and enjoyed, and I would heartily recommend it to students of life and lovers of humanity.

Also, this was my favourite February read.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

A Great Yorkshire Mystery

George, Elizabeth. A Great Deliverance. Chatter: Hodham, 2007 (1989).

George's novel, set partly in London and partly in a tiny Yorkshire village whose families and secrets are both complicated and intriguing, is at first glance an experiment in character diversity. Inspector Lynley, whom this book 'introduces,' according to the tag line on the title page, is an upper-class charmer who works as hard as he plays. Sergeant Barbara Havers, with whom he is partnered for the Yorkshire case central to the plot of George's novel, is a working-class girl who resents Lynley, his skill with women, and the elite culture in which the inspector was bred. The families in Yorkshire are a simple, sometimes superstitious, occasionally religious, and often secretive bunch, behind whose closed doors are practiced vices and abuses, sexual perversions, and devout faith--sometimes all at once. George's characters are rich and complicated, if occasionally slightly caricatured, and the society she portrays, which extends beyond the bounds of her northern village, into neighbouring cities, and as far afield as London, is an engaging one.

I enjoyed this book, and the careful manner in which past history and motives were incorporated into George's more modern narrative and introduction of Inspector Lynley, but the solution to the crime is far darker than the crime itself, and readers of delicate taste may wish to give this fine novel a pass.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

'A Better Quality of Murder' is a pretty fair sort of book

Granger, Ann. A Better Quality of Murder. Bidford-on-Avon: Headline, 2010.

I gather that with this book selection I jumped headlong into the middle of a series of detective novels, but, as with earlier novels about the unforgettable Hercule Poirot, Tommy and Tuppence, or Lord Peter Wimsey, Granger's Ben Ross can be met mid-series without any noticeable lost context.

I confess that I'm not much of a Victorianist, but Granger's portrayal of Victorian London agreed with my mental picture thereof, and if the book is as well-researched as her settings suggest, I learned a great deal about behavioral expectations, prostitution, and the early temperance movement. The title of the book plays lightly on the distinctions between women of the middle and upper classes and those who plied their trade in dark street corners, but the descriptions in the book are tasteful and subtly made.

Amid the frequent introductions of Victorian culture (but Granger shows, rather than tells) of course comes the murder (and then another and another) upon which the plot is based. Granger manages to make all her cultural references relevant to the plot, which I appreciate, and packages the finished product neatly into a solution with some elegant Victorian flavour. While she's perhaps not at the very top of my list of favourite mystery authors, Ann Granger is certainly someone whose books I'll seek out again in the future.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Sleuthing Required: Is Jessica Mann 'The Mystery Writer'?

Mann, Jessica. The Mystery Writer. London: Allison & Busby, 2007 (2006).

I'm a little embarrassed to say that I struggled with this book. Jessica Mann is a good writer with a clear command of the English language, and--although a little overly detailed at times--her stories and dialogues are told in a modernised and everyday style far easier to read than the texts I slog through every day in the course of my work. Yet where Mann is readable, I found the format of her book difficult to navigate.

The Mystery Writer begins in 1940 (a setting clearly and helpfully delineated by a date affixed to the top of the page) where it follows the adventures of two small boys, one wealthy and one from the lower classes, who are able to leave Britain for new and safer lives in North America. When the boat is attacked and the occupants forced into lifeboats, only one of these lads survives (and, of course, any avid reader of mysteries will immediately know which finds that extra breath of life). Eleven years later, in the second chapter, that same young man (now, of course, older) returns to his childhood home an artist and an adventurer (who immediately captures the interest of two young sisters).

From this point, the story skips ahead to modern times, drops the helpful dates from chapter headers, and becomes a bit blurry. Mann seems to alternate between narrators, telling the story, at times, as herself (the omniscient narrator of The Mystery Writer) and at times as her mystery-writer character within the novel. The timeline of flashbacks is not always clearly delineated, and although the final chapter neatly draws together the many complex strands of her plot, the conclusion is too easy to anticipate and the path to that end very badly obscured by the vague temporal definitions and multiple narrators. However, a blurb on the back of the book informs me that this is her eighteenth novel, so I shall be quite interested to read another book by Ms. Mann in the future. The historical research and depiction of life in war-torn Britain have been very neatly done, however, so perhaps my next selection will be one of Ms. Mann's nonfiction books, which might prove a tremendous treat.

Friday, February 04, 2011

I quite liked 'The Pilot's Wife'

Shreve, Anita. the Pilot's Wife. London: Little, Brown, 1999 (1998).

The Pilot's Wife begins simply, with a simple announcement that changes the life of Kathryn Lyons, whose pilot husband Jack has just died in a plane crash. Intermingling the story of Kathryn's present-day grief with reflective chapters telling the story of their meeting, courtship, and early marriage, Shreve manages to write a remarkable novel that is both an intimate examination of what it means to be married and a fast-paced tale whose mystery rises to the surface as the circumstances of Jack's plane crash grow ever less definite.

Kathryn's story is one of memories and pain: even as she struggles to come to terms with her husband's death, she becomes increasingly perplexed by the complicated question of what it means to know another person intimately. How deeply did she know her husband, and how well can she know her daughter? The decade of memories surrounding her relationship with both of these, and the sudden closeness she feels to the man who first broke the news of her husband's passage help to make this a wonderful, complicated novel that is difficult to define with any of the typical genres. It is a story of adventure, mystery, and even danger and betrayal, but it is also an excellent and close examination of what it means to be a human being, living in community with others, and what it means to be a family, a parent, or a spouse. The thematic complexities blended with the excellent and engaging storytelling in this novel make it one of the most rewarding reads I've enjoyed this year.